Former North Torrance standout John Nojima passed on Gregg Popovich
By Mike Waldner, Columnist
Even though the San Antonio Spurs are the sixth seed in the West and the Clippers the third seed, the assumption going in was that their NBA playoff series would be, as it has been, a knock-down, drag-out battle of basketball big boys.
Such is the respect defending champion San Antonio brings to the court with veteran winners Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili and, of course, young gun Kawhi Leonard, who grew up in Carson and Riverside and now is their star of stars.
As much as the NBA is driven by stars, there is no bigger reason for the respect the Spurs generate than Gregg Popovich. He’s as good as it gets among coaches.
The NBA has been crowning champions since 1947. Over the years, only two coaches have been good enough and, yes, fortunate enough, to win more championships that Pop.
The top two are Phil Jackson with 11 and Red Auerbach with nine. Next in line is Popovich with five, on the same plateau with John Kundla, coach of the Lakers when they resided in Minneapolis, and Pat Riley.
It goes without saying that any player who understands and respects the game would love the opportunity to play for Popovich.
No argument. That’s a case-closed comment.
This brings us to attorney John Nojima.
Once upon a time, Nojima was a very nice point guard at North Torrance High. Cal State University Dominguez Hills and Pomona-Pitzer were competing for his services. Not exactly the same as having UCLA and USC recruit you. Still, it is nice to be wanted.
The basketball coach seeking Nojima for Pomona-Pitzer, a sports marriage of Pomona College and Pitzer College, was none other than Gregg Popovich. It was a job he held from 1979 to 1987.
After giving serious consideration to Pomona-Pitzer and Popovich, Nojima signed on with Cal State Dominguez Hills and Dave Yanai, the respected coach there.
A fine basketball player, Nojima was a better student. He was the NCAA Division II Scholar Athlete of the Year and a Rhodes Scholarship finalist.
One of the differences between Cal State University Dominguez Hills and Pomona-Pitzer is that CSUDH is a Division II school while Pomona-Pitzer is in Division III. One difference between DII and DIII is scholarships. DII has scholarships, DIII does not.
CSUDH does not have a full complement of basketball scholarships. Never has, which is just one reason why Yanai was so respected. He did more than most with less financial support. The Toros traditionally split their scholarships throughout their roster, meaning partial scholarships rather than full rides.
At least it was and is some money.
To put the financial situation in perspective, consider current costs. Tuition at Pomona is $45,821. It’s $47,020 at Pitzer. This does not count room and board and more. Tuition and fees at CSUDH is $6,134. If you are from Torrance or elsewhere in the area, you can live at home and attend CSUDH.
Nojima picked CSUDH, had a nice basketball career, including being all-conference and team captain, and won an NCAA post-graduate scholarship.
All these years later, his friends cannot resist needling him about passing on the opportunity to play for Popovich.
During a quiet moment recently, Popovich was asked if he remembered recruiting Nojima.
After a slight pause to scan his memory roster, he shook his head.
“No,” he said.
It is understandable he does not recall a recruit who got away all those years ago.
“He remembers every player he had at Pomona-Pitzer,” said Spurs veteran publicity director Tom James.
The kicker is that when needled about passing on playing for Popovich, Nojima responds by saying, “I played for a better coach.”
When the story was related to Popovich, he laughed.
“I love it,” he said.
This little story tells us a lot about Nojima, Yanai and Popovich.